Set amongst the wooded hills of North Yorkshire, with the River Rye curving around it, the substantial remains of Rievaulx Abbey are breathtaking in the extreme. Most particularly, the east end of the abbey church, which include the skeletal remains of the presbytery with its spectacular series of arches, makes Rievaulx, for many people, the single most beautiful religious ruin in England.
Founded in 1132, the same year as Fountains, it was one of the earliest Cistercian buildings in the country, given over to the charge of 12 monks. The founder was Bernard, Abbott of the Cistercian house of Clairvaux in France, built with the express intent of spreading the Cistercian word to the wilds of northern England and Scotland. Rievaulx was to be the flagship in this mission and as the new abbey enjoyed considerable resources, it was able to found other houses in Bedfordshire and in Scotland as early as 1136.
Rievaulx grew to be extremely prosperous during the stewardship of its third abbot, Aelred, 1147-67; his predecessor resigned to become Abbot of Fountains. Aelred was the foremost religious writer of his day and soon became the most respected figure in the English church, his fame spreading across Europe so that Rievaulx was at the centre of international religious affairs. During these ‘boom' years the abbey housed some 140 monks and over 500 lay brothers. It became a major landowner in the county, earning a very healthy income from farming - at its peak the abbey herded over 14000 sheep, owned its own fishery and some very rewarding iron-ore mines. Not long after his death in 1167 Aelred was canonised, and in the early 1200's the saint's remains were placed in a magnificent shrine of gold and silver in the east-end of the abbey church at Rievaulx.
Completed about 1225, the presbytery of the abbey church, together with the neighbouring choir, was rebuilt to house the saint's shrine and relics. With its spectacularly tall, pointed arches it is the principle glory of the structure, considered to be the finest example of the Early English style of architecture. The naïve, dating back to 1135, is the earliest large Cistercian example of its kind in Britain. Foremost amongst the other buildings are the substantial refectory built in the late 1100's, and the less well preserved, but equally remarkable, chapter house with its rounded end. Small sections of arcading have been reconstructed from fallen stonework in both the main cloister and the infirmary cloister, to indicate to visitors how the arcades that ran round all four sides of the courtyards, might have looked.
Looking down upon the abbey from a neighbouring hillside is Rievaulx Terrace, a half mile of curving, landscaped garden, thoughtfully designed to offer panoramic views across the abbey complex and beyond. At each end of the Terrace stands a mock Grecian temple; the one is elaborately decorated, the other designed to cater for hunting parties.
Scottish raiders sacked Rievaulx Abbey in 1322, after the army of Edward II was defeated at the Battle of Byland, and the king withdrew to York. In 1539, as with other monasteries, it ceased to function on the orders of Henry VIII.